THE SONGS OF FRANCIS POULENC
Lieder Festival Singapore
Living Room @ The Arts House
27 October 2013)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 29 October 2013 with the title "Poulenc tribute a labour of love".
In the birth anniversary year of Wagner, Verdi and Britten, it should not be forgotten that 2013 is also the 50th anniversary of the death of Frenchman Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). He is the best-loved and most performed of the composing clique known as Les Six, and for good reason too.
The 3rd Singapore Lieder Festival organised by the Sing Song Club was devoted to the complete songs of Poulenc, spanning seven October evenings and utilising the talents of nine singers, two narrators, two ensembles and one very busy pianist, Shane Thio. The songs were performed chronologically, with the ensemble pieces occupying the final concert.
Young musicians of the Raffles Institution new music ensemble (above) confidently opened with Rapsodie Negre (Negro Rhapsody), Poulenc’s first work written as an impressionable and rebellious 18-year-old. The influences of
jazz and African rhythms, all the rage in 1917, were unmistakeable. A slight departure took the form of the song Honoloulou, with tenor Adrian Poon
singing nonsense lyrics by the rhyming but fictitious Makoko Kangourou.
Poulenc’s last song La dame de Monte-Carlo (1961), about a washed out and suicidal gambler casting her last die, reflected his own brittle and depressive psyche. Despite the broad sentimental melodies that typified Poulenc, a sense of desperation and resignation was well captured by Poon, with the words Monte-Carlo uttered like a curse rather than its usual trappings of glamour.
A more mature ensemble from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts conducted by Zechariah Goh Toh Chai accompanied baritone William Lim in Le Bal Masque (The Masked Ball), a 1932 secular cantata after words by Max Jacob. Here all the qualities that are quintessential Poulenc – acid wit, anarchic humour, mock sentimentality and a predilection for the comic and grotesque – came to bear with a shuddering vividness.
The concert and festival closed with Poulenc’s popular setting of the children’s classic The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff, narrated by Poon and Ruth Rodrigues. It was enchanting to be reunited with the ridiculously naïve story (a young elephant who loves the city, wearing fine clothes and driving cars), and its brilliantly characterised piano part in 22 movements evocatively performed by Thio (below).
One hundred and fifty-eight songs later, one was amazed at this labour of love mounted by the Sing Song Club, which had the misfortune of being under-publicised and under-subscribed. However its faithful audience got to enjoy what made Poulenc tick – his iconoclasm, insouciance, gift of melody and ultimately, his humanity.